"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 86: The beginnings of the Brazil book

Just over a month had passed when Bishop wrote her next letter to Grace, dated 26 July 1961. Lota’s new job with the park had taken them to Rio shortly after Bishop had written her previous letter and she reported, “We are still in Rio — three weeks at this stretch.” This letter was triggered by one Bishop finally received from her aunt, dated 14 July, which had arrived in Petrópolis on the 22nd (not too bad considering the distance). “A friend brought down some accumulated mail,” and Bishop was alarmed enough by Grace’s news to respond as soon as it came to hand.

What concerned Bishop was a report that Grace had had an operation. Just what the reason was for such an intervention is not clear, but Bishop’s “These damned lumps and things,” hint of some sort of cyst or growth. Her concern came out further in a frustrated observation: “What a nuisance the female … body is …” Fortunately, it appears to have been benign: “From what you say, it doesn’t sound too bad, but I hope you aren’t being brave!” Bishop knew how stoic her aunt was. By this time, she “hope[d] to goodness it is all over and everything is all right.” She reported that they were “going home again at last on the 28th, day after tomorrow, and so maybe I’ll find a letter from you or Phyllis,” at the post office.

As serious as this report was, Grace had also offered the cheerier news that all was well with “the new baby,” meaning Phyllis’s third child, Miriam. Miriam had two older brothers, Wallace and David, who clearly doted on their sister, to which Bishop responded, “isn’t it nice when the older children are crazy about the baby like that.” She then gave an account about “our friend here who has twelve [children]”: “the two little ones are both mad about babies and one day I saw them almost tearing the cook’s … baby apart — they both wanted to hold it at the same time.” This tugging, Bishop reported, did not bother the infant in question in the least: “the baby was lying placidly on the sofa, sucking a pacifier, not minding at all.”

This talk of babies reminded Bishop, of course, of “Monica,” and she told Grace that while it was “not very original of me to say so … we do miss [her] … dreadfully, after seeing her every day.” Bishop especially missed her “always grinning” good nature. When Mary Morse left for New York, Bishop noted, Monica “had two teeth and was sitting up.” Bishop hoped that they would be “back in September.”

The next paragraph of this fulsome letter turned to a subject that was clearly beginning to preoccupy Bishop in a serious way — the book about Brazil that she had mentioned in the previous letter. Even as Bishop remained ambivalent and conflicted about this project, she took it on, perhaps partly because Lota had become so busy and preoccupied with the big park project. Bishop was starting to feel some grief over losing the quiet time at the house in Samambaia, so perhaps she decided that it might help her to be occupied during the long weeks in Rio.

Bishop reminded her aunt that she “got a grant for ‘foreign travel’ — to be used this year and/or next — but because of Lota’s job we decided to stay put this year, and I’m just hoarding it for the time being.” This segued into confirming to her aunt that “now I’ve taken on a job, too.” Sometime in the intervening month, Bishop had agreed to the Brazil book, but, as she confessed to Grace, “[I] almost wish I hadn’t, it’s such a headache.”

She described its parameters: “LIFE magazine asked me to write the text of a small book on Brazil.” She noted it was part of “a series … each a different country.” Right from the start she was under no illusion about its value: “Probably no one reads the text, anyway, just looks at the photographs.” She observed that the visual component of these books “are wonderful, usually.” But declared outright: “that kind of writing is hard for me to do.” She was expected “to cover the whole country — history, economics, geography, arts, sports — everything, even if superficially.” A daunting task even for a seasoned scholar, which Bishop was surely not.
(The Author's bio inside the Life World Library's Brazil.)
Bishop was not behind the bush about why she choose to take on this task: “they will pay well, and also pay for three weeks in NY to work on it with them [the editors] — and the plane fare.” It was serious money, so she decided, perhaps against her better judgement, that she “might as well tackle it.”

Not only did she have doubts about her ability to pull it off, and of the value of this kind of writing, she also observed that she didn’t “like the magazine and don’t like them much,” regarding “them” as “high-pressure salesmen types.” In the end, “I am doing it for the money.” Period. She did weakly aver that she knew “a lot about Brazil by now, of course, willy nilly.” Not the most confident of assertions.

The other big incentive was that trip to New York, which she hoped might happen “in October,” with the possibility that she “MIGHT get to N.S. too.” At this point, she paused to wonder if she hadn’t “already told you all of this … forgive me if I have.”

Getting to the US also meant that she might also be able to go “see Aunt Florence, without warning, to try to find out what’s going on.” This next subject and other family matters interjected themselves and the Brazil book receded for a couple of paragraphs. The next post will take up these family issues.

The writing of the “Life World Library” book about Brazil and the upsetting editing process that ensued has become (in)famous in Bishop lore. The reasons we do anything are often complex, and especially so for something as significant as writing a book. All the reasons Bishop stated to her aunt must be taken at face value and she was certainly not apologetic for the primary one: money; but her ambivalence and conflict, present from the beginning, laid a foundation for an unsettling and, in the end, unsatisfying effort.

Bishop did not seek out the work, but the timing of this unbidden offer was important. It presented itself just as Lota was becoming immersed in the park job, purposeful work on a major development that had not only implications for Rio but also for the whole nation. In that moment, Elizabeth and Lota did not know how consuming the park would become, but Bishop somehow sensed that a shift was happening and the sudden appearance of such an offer perhaps seemed like a sign. Because her serious writing (especially poems) took so long to manifest, this “busy work” would be a way of demonstrating her interest in her adopted country and a way to occupy herself in the midst of the work swiftly consuming Lota. The psychology behind her decision was not as simple as “I’m doing it for the money,” but whatever the deeper reasons, accepting the offer was not an especially good decision.

Benjamin Moser writes insightfully about the results of an effort that, it could be argued, was a mistake on Bishop’s part; but at the time (even with her reservations), Bishop took it on and did the best she could. What happened to this strange anomaly in Bishop’s oeuvre after her death is not on her. Scholars have their own agendas. We all do things in the moment that we later regret and would rather forget, all part of being human. Bishop lived in Brazil for over five years after Brazil was published in 1962. One wonders how many people she told about it, except to complain. She sent copies to a few friends with some corrections made in the margins; but once the deed was done, Bishop turned quickly to other things, putting the unpleasant experience behind her.

Bishop instructed the Time-Life editors to send a copy to Grace (perhaps she thought the grandchildren would enjoy looking at the pictures). Unlike all the other books she sent to her aunt and cousin, which were lovingly inscribed, Bishop did not sign this copy; rather it arrived with an impersonal card with a printed inscription: “With compliments Elizabeth Bishop Time Inc. Book Division.” Decades ago, I found a copy of this ubiquitous book in a used bookstore in Halifax. I confess that I have only looked at the pictures! Her frustration with the whole experience is well-known among Bishop scholars. I just never took the time to read it. I know so little about Brazil, that I would not be able to identify the issues. Even so, I should read it one of these days.

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